Friday, June 09, 2006

Beggars, babes and the Bible

Rembrandt Etchings: Central Chidlom, Bangkok

Thanks to Amazon and iTunes and dodgy DVD stalls, my exile in the place of the olive plums means that I'm doing OK for books and recorded music and movies. Other manifestations of Western culture, however, are somewhat sparse, unless you're into third-rate Noel Coward or (help) The Eagles.

So when I journey back to the Land of Jade and ASBOs, I tend to gorge on gigs and plays and, above all, galleries. Oddly, just before we were due to leave for our latest homeward jaunt, we discovered that Bangkok has suddenly come good on the pretty picture front. The Dutch embassy has organised an exhibition of etchings by the art world's greatest cloggy (Vincent fans may cough discreetly here), Rembrandt van Rijn. The event honours the 60th anniversary of HM the King's accession to the Thai throne, as well as marking 400 years since Rembrandt's birth.

By the nature of the medium, the pictures are small, but there are 88 of them. Some are finished products, intended for clients; some are preliminary studies for paintings; and others are pretty much spontaneous doodles, an arm here, a head there, an old man leaning into the frame at 90 degrees to everything else. Here we see what distinguished Rembrandt from his predecessors; he was one of the first major artists to take on the teachings of the Renaissance and interpret them in a humane, emotional way (as distinct from the intellectual rigour of, say, Leonardo). He's fascinated by light and shade, by the imperfections of skin, by the effect of ageing. His Diana is no glam superhero; this girl's got cellulite you wouldn't believe.

His images of Amsterdam's many beggars and vagabonds demonstrate a wry tenderness that contrasts with the sententious, implied criticism that previous artists had shown. The poor and homeless were widely believed to be responsible for their fate, but Rembrandt's ability to characterise them as flawed but dignified individuals means that his pictures would fit neatly into the works of Dickens, 200-odd years later. Looking at the peg-legged 'captain', head bowed, his arm in a sling, you can't help but muse on the misadventures that might have brought him here.

Rembrandt works within the boundaries demanded by the artistic tradition of his time, but his buzzing fascination for the real, the fleshy, means that he always seems to be chipping away at the expectations holding him back. All his contemporaries were dutiful chroniclers of scenes from the Bible, but he reminds us that this was stuff that happened. His 'Descent from the Cross' doesn't depict a slim, ethereal presence, elegantly dead. One nail is out, and the released arm hangs useless, broken. A chunky, Dutch labourer, not a non-specifically eastern Mediterranean figure, wields the pliers. This is the muscular, in-your-face Jesus of Dennis Potter, not Robert Powell's blue-eyed pretty boy. This is the work of a man with, his religious faith notwithstanding, a lust for life. Sorry, wrong Dutchman again.

So, Rembrandt hits Bangkok, which is all well and good, with a few buts. The fact that the etchings are on show in a department store rather than a gallery seems, on the face of it, to be a positive, egalitarian move, bringing great art to the masses. But it's probably more an indication of desperation, that Bangkok lacks a gallery space to compete with the likes of Singapore and Shanghai. Moreover, in this city, a store like Central hardly opens its arms to the curious, unwashed masses. In any case, if any member of the hoi-polloi were to slip into the show, the fact that the explanatory captions are only in English renders them pretty useless.

I look at his street people again. His predecessors thought they'd brought their misfortune on themselves. In fact, this is a fairly prevalent view in Thai Buddhist culture, which sees a lowly social position as being the karmic result of bad behaviour in a previous existence. Rembrandt was no anarchist, but there's a sense that exposing the masses to his energetic, inclusive humanism might be, for some people, just that little bit too dangerous.


Pashmina said...

Top post, Tim. Co-incidentally I am extending my trip to Amsterdam overnight next week specifically so I can catch the Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum (just to add insult to injury to the Vincent fans).

Ironically this may mean I'll end up missing you when you're here, but hey, at least I'll get to see some decent paintings.

Interpreter Pavlov said...

Great post. Enjoyed this from beginning to end. Good insights into Rembrandt, tho' I wonder what meaning - apart from the considerations of prestige you mention - something as Western as Rembrandt and his subjects can have in the far East and what efforts are made to interpret his work.

Your remarks on his Descent from the Cross remind me of St Francis of Assisi, who apparently once made a 'live' Nativity scene in a cowshed with cattle, sheep, goats and poultry to illustrate the mess, squalor and nastiness of it, a concept of realism it needed a Rembrandt to express in art many years later.

Tim Footman said...

Pashmina: I fully endorse your sense of priorities.

Pavlov: There have been a few lectures tied into the exhibition, but they seem to focus on Rembrandt's techniques; there's even an etching workshop.

I think the idea of drawing attention to social ills in a graphic way is a bit too in-your-face for Thais; charity advertising is rather more decorous. That said, the idea of the beneficial power of contemplating death and decay is ingrained in Buddhist practice.

So what do I know?

First Nations said...

I know just the picture you mean. draped in furs, glimmering in the firelight like a statue carved from suet? saskia was the model for that i think. its true what they say...butter IS love.

Tim Footman said...

This is the one, FN. Looks like Saskia. But, hey, these hefty Dutch broads all blur together, don't they?